Friday, August 09, 2013

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

It's been a while since I finished reading a novel of moderate length ( 400 pages ) within 3 weeks - yes, sounds a little pathetic I know, but I have a bad habit of juggling multiple books and magazines, plus a tonne of commitments which sap what remaining energy I have at the beginning and end of the day to do any recreational reading.

If I'd had the luxury of time, I would've probably taken 6 weeks to complete Crazy Rich Asians. Unfortunately, I got a copy brand new from the National Library ( first on the reservation list, hah! ) and a whole line of people was waiting for me to return it, so I apologize if this review is skimpy on detail, because the book is no longer in my possession.

Unless you've been hibernating in a cave these past few months, you would've at least heard or read about Kevin Kwan's debut which has become a national bestseller in the U.S. and was recently green-lit for a Hollywood film adaptation.

First, many congratulations to Mr. Kwan, a native Singaporean whose work is creating great buzz for our country.

Second, I look forward to news about the cast and shooting locations. I assume they'll come to Singapore? :)

Third, I would recommend this novel, but with caveats.

Synopses and reviews are available from various online sources, but in a nutshell, CRA focuses on Asian high society - a colourful group of powerful and insanely wealthy characters with equally exotic names and backgrounds.

Prepare yourself for over-the-top opulence and debauchery - regular trips to Paris to purchase haute couture gowns which cost $200,000 each; private viewings at exclusive jewellery galleries where millions are spent without guilt; a sprawling mansion behind the Singapore Botanic Gardens, guarded by Gurkhas and manned by an army of servants larger than Downton Abbey's ( the road mentioned in the novel exists - I was kay-poh enough to check my street directory :)); luxurious getaways via private jet - the list never ends.

Posh brands are mentioned extensively, and for the ignorant reader ( like myself ), this penchant for name-dropping might cause some irritation because not only does it affect the flow of the prose, it's also often performed without adequate description ( aside from the occasional footnote ).

I'm certain many will revel in the exhaustive expositions, and I can only imagine what such scenes will look like when the film takes shape. I consider myself an avid reader, and enjoy lengthy narratives immensely. While there's no question that Kwan writes well, his style has a superficial tone to it, and after the umpteenth paragraph waxing lyrical about someone's dress / shoes / face / palatial home, my attention started wavering.

Then there's the multitude of characters, many of whom are related through marriage. A helpful family tree is provided but I still found it difficult to follow. To me, it's an indication of the lack of depth with regards to portrayal, but I don't blame Kwan for his choices. CRA was meant to be savoured as a decadent dessert, albeit a really expensive one. Don't expect a literary classic.

It is, however, highly entertaining. Eccentric personalities abound, and even the super-rich run the gamut of extreme behaviour, from reckless extravagance to irrational miserliness. Many of the outrageous dialogues made me laugh out loud, and a certain bachelor party in Macau is positively hair-raising.

Viciousness also features prominently, and is mostly confined to the female cliques. Gossip traverses the Atlantic within seconds thanks to mobile phones and the Internet; tai-tai's spew venom during a bible study session; a tropical island holiday turns sinister, complete with a gutted fish and a savagely worded note.

Most readers aren't privy to what goes on within this relatively mysterious world, so many must be guessing exactly how much of this is actually true. Kwan has apparently denied that the characters are based on people he knows, but in one interview, he mentions his mother's clothes being exclusively tailored and how stylish his grandparents were. Plus, in the book itself, he admits to being an ACS boy. You do the math!

Speaking from personal experience, I can vouch for the authenticity of Kwan's depictions. I know a handful of high society figures, and they definitely span the whole spectrum. One family owns a business empire and has a son who once served as a U.S. ambassador, but they live frugally, dress in nondescript attire, and hand out a maximum of $10 per Chinese New Year red packet. A longtime friend is the only son of a couple whose abundant wealth I can only surmise, because he never discusses it with anybody, is one of the most humble and hardworking people I know, and doesn't seem to own anything faintly resembling a designer brand. How do I know his parents are filthy rich? People who were invited to his home - only once - told me he lives in "a palace". It was more than 10 years ago - I think I was invited but couldn't make it. Have been dropping hints ever since. Did someone tell me he lives at Tyersall Park??? :)
Then there's the 20-plus-year-old diva who loves to flaunt her lavish lifestyle for all to see. She travels frequently "to shop", shows off haute couture gowns at high society events, and is absolutely vile.

Concerns-wise, I do have a few. Like Amy Chua's controversial Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother ( which totally distorts the image of Asian mums ), CRA - though a fictional tale - may reinforce Western prejudices. While I agree that Singaporeans are generally loud, crass and gossipy, the novel amplifies this significantly, and for those of us who actively avoid behaving in this manner, being inaccurately portrayed to the rest of the world isn't a pleasant thought.

I suppose it all depends on Hollywood - who knows how much control Kwan can negotiate, what the producers / screenwriter / director want to do with the story, etc. I just hope they'll shoot the movie in Singapore, and have the decency to cast local actors. Rope in the theatre veterans ( Adrian Pang, Janice Koh, Tan Kheng Hua, etc ), whom I think are exceptional!

I've tweeted Kwan a few times over the past month, and haven't received any acknowledgement so far. Considering the fact that he has fewer than 300 followers, tweets daily and responds to other Twitter users, the silence is perplexing. Perhaps a tweet about my blog review will finally trigger a reaction? :)

Anyway, congrats again, and even though putting Singapore on the map in this manner may have repercussions, it's a significant splash nonetheless. Hopefully, it will help pave the way for other aspiring writers ( including myself ), which is always a good thing.

All the best, Mr. Kwan!

p.s. If you'd like a taste of more sinful affluence, I also recommend Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby ( film ) and John Berendt's The City Of Falling Angels ( novel written by one of my favourite authors ).
The former is a sumptuous visual spectacle, and the latter a divine reading experience. Enjoy. :)

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